Number of victims: 1 - 4
Date of murders: 1977 - 1982
Date of arrest:
July 3, 1989
Date of birth: 1955
Victims profile: Her children,
James William Taylor, 23-month-old /
Tabitha Jenelle Bowen, 3-month-old /
Earl Wayne Bowen, 31-month-old /
Jenny Ann Wright, 11
Method of murder:
Sentenced to life in prison on May 5, 1990
Martha Ann Johnson (also known as Martha
Ann Bowen) (born 1955) is an American serial killer from Georgia
convicted of smothering to death three of her children between 1977
Johnson was in her third marriage by the age of 22. Her first
marriage produced a girl, born in 1971. Her second marriage produced a
son in 1975 and her third marriage, to Earl Bowen, produced a son and
daughter, born 1979 and 1980, respectively.
On September 23, 1977, Johnson claimed 23-month-old James William
Taylor was unresponsive when she attempted to wake him up from his
nap. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The
cause of death was determined to be sudden infant death syndrome
On November 30, 1980, Johnson claimed her three-month-old daughter
Tabitha Jenelle Bowen was blue when she went to wake her up from a
nap. Paramedics were unable to revive Tabitha, and her death was also
attributed to SIDS.
In January 1981, 31-month-old Earl Wayne Bowen was found with a
package of rat poison. He was treated and release from the hospital,
after which his parents claimed he began to have seizures. On February
12, 1981, Earl went into cardiac arrest while being taken to the
hospital during a seizure. He was revived and placed on life support;
however, doctors pronounced him brain dead, and he was removed from
life support three days later.
Johnson claimed her 11-year-old daughter Jenny Ann Wright was
complaining of chest pains, for which a doctor prescribed Tylenol and
a rib belt. On February 21, 1982, paramedics found Jenny Ann face down
on Johnson's bed with foam coming out of her mouth, but were unable to
resuscitate her. An autopsy indicated that Jenny Ann had died of
Johnson and Bowen separated permanently, and Johnson remarried.
Arrest, confession and conviction
In December 1989, an article in The Atlanta Constitution
questioned the deaths, and the cases were reopened. Investigators
determined that each child's death was preceded seven to 10 days by
marital problems between Johnson and Bowen.
On July 3, 1989, Johnson was arrested, and she confessed to killing
two of her children. After confrontations with Bowen, Johnson would
suffocate the children by rolling her 250-pound body on them as they
slept. She claimed the motive was to punish her husband. Johnson
claimed she was not responsible for the deaths of her two youngest
By the beginning of her trial in April 1990, Johnson had retracted
her confession. On May 5, 1990, she was convicted of first-degree
murder for the smothering deaths of three of her four children and
sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life on appeal.
She is currently housed at Pulaski State Prison.
Victims of Martha Ann Johnson
Martha Ann Johnson was found guilty of murdering
three of her children and is suspected of murdering another one of her
children. We currently have information on all of her victims.
James William Taylor
James, 23 months old, was murdered on September 23,
1977. The cause of death was ruled as sudden infant death syndrome.
Tabitha Jenelle Bowen
Tabitha, 3 months old, was murdered on November 30,
1980. Her death was ruled as sudden infant death syndrome.
Earl Wayne Bowen
Earl, 31 months old, was murdered on February 15,
1981. He had been found with a package of rat poison and suffered
seizures after returning home from the hospital. He went into cardiac
arrest, was declared brain dead and was removed from life support.
Johnson is suspected of being involved in this murder.
Jenny Ann Wright
Jenny, age 11, was murdered on February 21, 1982.
She has died of asphyxia.
Martha Ann Johnson
Monday-morning quarterbacks in
Georgia had a field day with the case of Martha Johnson, trying to
explain how the murders of four children fell through the cracks of
the criminal justice system.
Homicide investigators blamed their
failure on the suspects change of address, noting ruefully that
different jurisdictions often fail to keep in touch. Physicians
dropped the ball repeatedly, misdiagnosing the cause of death in
Marthas first three murders. On the fourth, detectives and a medical
examiner suggested prosecution, but the Clayton County D.A. never
followed through. Even Marthas husband, after noting a distinctive
pattern in the deaths, could not persuade authorities to act. However
the responsibility is portioned out, the bungling cost four lives.
A Georgia native, born in 1955,
Martha Johnson was working on her third marriage at age twenty-two.
The first had produced a daughter, Jennyann Wright, born in 1971.
James William Taylor, the product of Marthas second marriage, followed
in 1975. Husband number three, Earl Bowen, got along well with Marthas
children and fathered two of his own--Earl Wayne in 1979 and Tibitha
Janel in 1980--but he did not get along so well with Martha.
In fact, the couple argued bitterly,
and Early repeatedly walked out to let his temper cool. They always
patched things up, or so it seemed, but Martha had begun to feel the
strain. Perhaps she saw the children as a stumbling block to
happiness, or simply pawns to be manipulated in a deadly private game.
In either case, the end result was lethal.
Two-year-old James Taylor was the
first to go, already dead when Martha brought him to the Clayton
County hospital on September 25, 1977. He had failed to wake up that
morning, she said, and doctors were unable to revive him. Despite his
relatively advanced age, they blamed the boys death on Sudden Infant
Death Syndrome (SIDS) and closed the file. Earl Bowen shared his wifes
apparent grief and came back home.
In 1980, the couple separated again,
and Martha made another emergency trip to the hospital. This time, the
victim was three-month-old Tibitha, and the diagnosed cause of death
was identical. Earl Bowen was openly suspicious, and experts consider
two SIDS deaths in the same family improbable, but Clayton County
physicians and detectives accepted Marthas plea of bad luck.
Yet another quarrel and separation
preceded the death of two-year-old Earl Wayne Bowen, on February 15,
1981. This time, physicians gave SIDS a break and blamed the childs
death on seizure disorder of unknown etiology. Following Earls
funeral, 10-year-old Jennyann told her father and a Fulton County
social worker that she was afraid to stay home with her mother.
Welfare workers interviewed the
family but found no legal grounds for removing Jennyann to a foster
home. Detectives and the county medical examiner agreed there was no
evidence of homicide to build a case in court. A year and six days
after little Earls death, Martha summoned police to her new home in
Jonesboro, declaring that her daughter had stopped breathing.
Patrolmen found the child lying
face-down on her bed, beyond help by the time paramedics arrived. An
autopsy blamed her death on probable asphyxia, and the medical
examiner called it suspicious, noting that this 11-year-old Caucasian
female is the fourth child to die following domestic arguments between
the parents. Even so, the coroner declined to hold an inquest, and the
district attorneys office ignored a recommendation that Martha be
It was finally too much for Bowen,
and the couple split for good. Martha was remarried to Charles
Johnson, living in Locust Grove, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
launched a new investigation of her case in December 1988.
A month later, Dr. William Anderson
declared that his 1977 diagnosis of SIDS for James Taylor was probably
wrong. With twenty-twenty hindsight, the doctor told newsmen, I
wouldnt hesitate to say theres a 90% chance that this is homicide.
This time, police were listening.
Martha was arrested on July 3, 1989, held without bail on a charge of
murdering Jennyann. In a videotaped confession, made the same day, she
admitted smothering Jennyann and James Taylor by rolling her 250-pound
bulk on top of the children as they slept. In each case, Martha said,
her motive was to bring Earl Bowen home. The deaths of Tibitha and
little Earl, she told police, were not her fault. Clayton County
prosecutors disagreed, charging Johnson with two more counts of murder
in the week following her arrest. (No charge has been filed to date in
the death of James Taylor, in Fulton County.)
Martha changed her mind and recanted
the confession before her murder trial began, on April 30, 1990, but
the tape was still admitted into evidence. Charles Johnson did his
best for the defense, tearfully describing Martha as a good wife and
mother who could never do anything like theyre saying. Jurors
disagreed, convicting her of first-degree murder on May 5, and she was
sentenced to death. Georgias Supreme Court rejected Marthas appeal in
Michael Newton -
An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
SEX: F RACE: W TYPE: T MOTIVE:
MO: Smothered her own children;
deaths mistaken for SIDS.
DISPOSITION: Condemned, 1990
(commuted on appeal).
Supreme Court of Georgia
261 Ga. 419, 405
JOHNSON v. THE STATE
Cowen & Cowen, Martin L. Cowen III, for appellant.
The appellant, Martha Ann Johnson, was convicted
for the murder of her daughter and sentenced to life in prison.  We
In 1982 the Clayton County Police Department
responded to a call regarding the death of a child, Jenny Ann Wright,
Mrs. Johnson's 11-year-old daughter. The state crime lab performed an
autopsy and determined that asphyxiation was the cause of death.
Mrs. Johnson was informed that she was a suspect in
the death of her daughter Jenny and the deaths of her three other
children; however, no action was taken against Mrs. Johnson until the
case was reopened in 1988.  During an audio- and videotaped
interview between Mrs. Johnson and an officer on July 3, 1989, at the
Clayton County Police Department, Mrs. Johnson admitted killing her
daughter and also admitted killing her son J. W. Taylor. She denied
causing the deaths of her two other children, Wayne Bowen and Tabitha
1. The evidence is sufficient such that a rational
trier of fact could have found the appellant guilty as charged beyond
a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (99 SC 2781, 61
LE2d 560) (1979).
2. The appellant argues that the trial court erred
in admitting her confession into evidence over her objection. OCGA
24-3-50 provides: "To make a
confession admissible, it must have been made voluntarily, without
being induced by another by the slightest hope of benefit or remotest
fear of injury." We conclude that the trial court's decision to allow
the appellant's confession into evidence was not error. Spence v.
106 Ga. App. 340 (127 SE2d 33), rev'd on
218 Ga. 525 (128 SE2d 926) (1962). When
asked about the probabilities that a child, such as one of the
deceased children of the appellant, would die of Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome (SIDS), the witness stated that "about 5% of these cases, and
this is a very conservative estimate, might be due to causes similar
to SIDS." There was no factual basis given for this calculation, nor
was there any foundation laid as to the witness' knowledge of the
symptoms or causes of SIDS. The witness' sole support for his
calculations was that he had "long conversations with several subject
experts at [the Centers for Disease Control] who are pediatricians and
I have talked to them about this case to make sure that my
calculations are not off base." The witness was not a doctor, but a
biostatistician qualified only to testify as to the method of
calculation of the probabilities of independent events. Similarly, the
pediatricians were not shown to be statisticians capable of commenting
intelligently as to the accuracy of the witness' analysis.
We disapprove of the admission of such testimony,
however, in light of the appellant's confession, the admission of the
statistician's testimony was harmless error.
4. The appellant also asserts that the trial court
erred in failing to give a jury charge on good character. The
testimony presented by the appellant's husband was not sufficient to
raise good character as a defense. In Jones v. State,
257 Ga. 753, 757 (363
SE2d 529) (1988), we held that a character witness could
testify only to the general reputation of the defendant in the
community and was not permitted to give his personal opinions as to
the defendant's character. Mr. Johnson's testimony did not rise to
character evidence. He only gave his opinion about his wife; he did
not put into evidence her reputation in the community.
he appellant testified extensively before the jury
and denied committing the murder. She did not rely on a character
defense. Character is not put in issue within the meaning of OCGA
24-9-20 (b) by inadvertent statements
regarding defendant's good conduct. Jones, supra at 758. Character
should be placed in evidence as an affirmative defense. We affirm the
trial court's decision in refusing to charge the jury on character.
5. We need not address any other issues raised in
this appeal as they do not constitute error.
Cox, Jr., for appellee.
1. The child's death occurred on February 21, 1982.
The Clayton County jury returned its sentencing verdict on May 5,
1990. A motion for new trial was denied on December 17, 1990. Notice
of appeal was filed December 20, 1990, and the case was docketed
February 7, 1991. The case was orally argued April 15, 1991.
2. Three other children ages one-and-a-half years,
two years, and three months, died from 1977 to 1981. The causes of
death were listed on the death certificates as Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome, seizure disorder, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Martha Ann Johnson